Neil W. Blackmon
Part II of what prior to the Belgium match at Cleveland’s “Factory of Sadness” we called a two act summer for the US Men’s National Team begins (late) Friday night in the whale’s…err.. San Diego when the Yanks face Guatemala in a Gold Cup tuneup. By and large, the squad is different than the one that steamrolled its way past Germany and secured nine points in three qualifying matches last month, but it is still a veteran-heavy group that should be considered slight favorites to win the Gold Cup for the first time since Benny Feilhaber’s “blast heard ’round the continent” in 2007. The Americans’ opponent, Guatemala, have largely been in a free-for-all since bowing out of World Cup qualifying just before the Hex, and while they bring what is largely their “A” team to San Diego, the real story tonight at the venue San Diegans affectionately still call “The Murph” centers on Landon Donovan, prodigal son returned. Will the Yanks all-time leading goals and assists man begin his Klinsmann penance tour with a flourish, signaling his intent to secure a vital role on the “A” team side as they near Brazil? Answers will come sooner rather than later. Secondary stories for the Americans will center on the development of depth options for the senior side and the critical nature of the Gold Cup in serving that purpose– Klinsmann’s only chance to get tournament (read competitive) quality looks at fringe players to determine their value, if any, moving forward. And of course there’s the very pleasant story of DaMarcus Beasley, who will wear the captain’s armband for the tournament. It’s a just move, one explored eloquently by Richard Farley here, and it demonstrates nicely what a strange soccer universe we’re in right now with the USMNT, one where Landon Donovan’s place is uncertain but DaMarcus Beasley, who has battled uncertainty throughout a career that has taken him to Champions League semifinals and all corners of the earth, is a fixture worthy of Jurgen Klinsmann’s trust.
Can Landon Donovan go all Veronica Corningstone and win Jurgen Klinsmann’s guarded Ron Burgundy heart over? We shall find out.
The opponent means that this is an abbreviated preview– hey– this isn’t USA vs. Ghana for a spot in the World Cup quarters folks– but we’ll still serve up the usuals and then kick the particulars.
The Series: 24th meeting. United States lead, 13-4-6. The United States did tie Guatemala in qualifying thanks to a splendid free kick by Marco Pappa last June. The Americans won the other qualifying match. The Americans haven’t lost to Guatemala since the Reagan Administration, and have never fallen to Los Chapines on American soil. An interesting note: other than Mexico, Canada and Costa Rica (in that order), the Americans have played Guatemala more than any other opponent. There’s some rivalry here that could make the friendly chippy– and judging by this column from The Guatemala Times yesterday- there is no love lost on the Guatemalan end.
Venue and Weather: The Murph. San Diego. Well-past the pre-June gloom and into the glorious. 65, clear, no chance of rain at kick.
What We’ll See From The Yanks: A Gold Cup dress rehearsal. Klinsmann ditching his 4-2-3-1 formation (we think) for a more suitable to his personnel, modified 4-4-2, relying on a veteran backline and the “6”, Kyle Beckerman, to shield Landon Donovan and an experimental group of attacking players. While it would be shocking if Klinsmann didn’t substitute liberally, he will likely want to look at one variation of his preconceived Gold Cup starting 11 for at least a half, if not a full hour. We’ll get to position-by-position expectations shortly, but it’s worth noting a couple of things.
First, while the story is without question Landon Donovan, the grievous angel returned, this isn’t the match to scrutinize his play in too much. He’ll be getting his sea legs under him here, and Klinsmann has indicated to us media types that he understands this. The team has moved forward, but Klinsmann is much more concerned with Donovan’s tournament performance than he is with what happens at the Murph. “Once the tournament starts, we’ll see. There’s a lot at stake,” Klinsmann said Thursday. “He had his break. He had his reasons for it. And we are thrilled to have him back. But now it’s all about your performance. The players know this is an opportunity for every one of them to make a strong case toward Brazil 2014.” Social media is such that every Donovan touch or misstep will be judged and hyped- good and bad tonight. Resist the urge to join that mob.
Second, while you can’t judge Donovan on one night– you will get a good look at the type of defensive tactics the US will face in the group stages of the Gold Cup. It will require patience from the United States in their midfield buildups and distributions to break Guatemala down. Expect Los Chapines to sit with nine, at times even ten men behind the ball and remain very narrow– attempting to force the United States to defeat them from width. This will place added pressure on the American wing players and fullbacks to remain close to the endlines and force the Guatemalans out. If they can do that, the Americans will have a chance to be very successful. If they can’t– it will be difficult to break an organized, narrow defense down through the center. Note: Belize, while a bit more aggressive in attack, will drop nearly as deep and wait to counter– they just have more pace than Los Chapines.
As for the American lineup, expect Nick Rimando to play the first half in goal behind the back four of Tony Beltran, who Klinsmann this week called a “special talent”, Clarence Goodson, Oguchi Onyewu and DaMarcus Beasley to be the chosen four. Michael Orozco-Fiscal might make sense instead of Onyewu, especially because MOF provides the pace necessary to cope a bit better with “defend deep and counter” type strategies, but to be frank I don’t think any of Los Chapines forwards who are available for this match should be overwhelming for Onyewu, and because it is a friendly, I think Klinsmann can roll the dice. After all, if Onyewu can’t deal with Guatemala’s Minor Lopez or Kevin Arriola on the occasional flying counterattack, who can he deal with?
At first glance, the American midfield is less tricky. Kyle Beckerman is the “6” and really the only holder on the Gold Cup roster so he’s in for a long month. He’ll start tonight, and might play 90 minutes– though we’d like to see him taken off given how critical he will be to winning the tournament. Stu Holden is, according to Klinsmann, “close to fit” and this is a big camp and tournament for the Bolton man. Play well, and he can cement a spot on the Brazil roster, with the sky being the limit as to what his role on that team could be. Landon Donovan will man his usual position on the flank, and we hope the other wing will be occupied by Alejandro Bedoya, who is the subject of rather serious transfer rumors that have him moving to FC Twente after the Gold Cup. Bedoya had a very good spring at his club, and is a player that has to intrigue Klinsmann because of his ability to distribute and play diverse styles on the wing. He’s a good diagonal runner off the ball, but not a one-trick pony in that he’s perfectly comfortable staying wide, handling the ball at his feet and providing wide service. In the absence of Zusi and Johnson and given the injury to Josh Gatt, the US is limited on the wing in this tournament and Bedoya is a better positional fit for the wide spot than Jose Torres, who presents the tactical dilemmas we’ve discussed ad nauseam over the past couple of years.
Klinsmann could decide to play both– with Torres in an advanced “10” position and Bedoya behind on a flank– or even the opposite, although that creates a drag effect on the US ability to get wide because it is a poor place to slot Torres, who wants to get central and play narrowly and near the ball. Torres isn’t a “10” in terms of his physicality or technical skill, but at least it keeps him in the center of the field and near the ball. If this is the move, expect Herculez Gomez to play the role of lone striker. A more interesting tactical choice would be to deploy a forward tandem of Jack Mac and Herculez Gomez, or even Jack Mac and Will Bruin. Bruin has struggled without a partner who can play over the shoulder at Houston, and a partner like Jack Mac could be the key to getting him going. That pairing should get a look at some point in the match, but if we’re betting here- we think it is Herculez Gomez up top and the Union man Jack McInerney with him.
Note the overarching theme here though: what Klinsmann decides to do up top largely depends on what he wants to do/envisions with Jose Torres.
What We’ll See From Guatemala: Defend deep, counter. Marco Pappa is absent from this group of young players but there are still veterans like Carlos Gallardo, Jose Manuel Contreras and the Lopez’s, Jonathan and Minor who will join the team, now led by Victor Hugo Monzon, who took over after Los Chapines failed to qualify for the Gold Cup under Ever Almeida.
The change in managers d0es not mean tactical changes are likely. They have remained defensive-minded and narrow, choosing to drive opponents out wide by clogging the middle, and are likely to remain so tonight. Expect a 5-4-1 that relies on producing turnovers deeper in the midfield zone and then unleashing pacy Kevin Arriola on the break. Minor Lopez is more of a target man- and he makes his living in Chile preying on smaller, less strong center halves on set pieces (another big argument for Onyewu). American born Edward Santeliz is the other forward at Monzon’s disposal– he’s really an unknown internationally but did play for his hometown Chicago Riot, which is just that.
Pulling the midfield strings with Contreras will be Jean Marquez and veteran Jonathan Lopez, who you may remember played marvelously against El Tri in the 2011 Gold Cup, where Guatemala’s defend and counter strategy nearly carried the day– and probably should have had Ruiz finished his chances with aplomb. Again, the first priority for those guys will be to defend and clog the center, pushing the Americans wide and allowing the backline of Carlos Gallardo, Carlos Castrillo, Elias Vasquez and Johnny Giron to remain compact and organized against US service into the area. It isn’t a complicated formula, but against a US blend of attackers who have quite literally never played a competitive match together (Turkey in the 2010 World Cup Send Off Series was close to this formulation)– it isn’t a bad formula either.
Guatemala Player to Watch: Minor Lopez. I was tempted to pick a goalkeeper for the first time in a long time in this space but the Chilean Premier League forward presents exactly the type of set-piece danger that can be crushing in a Gold Cup and so we’ll stick with him. At 6’4, he’ll be difficult for even aerial specialist Clarence Goodson to mark and the US will want to make sure they account for him on every dead ball. Lopez was actually more effective than Almeida’s preferred Dwight Pezzarossi in the World Cup qualifying tournament, but for whatever reason, he was utilized as a substitute to the bitter end. The thinking in Guatemala is that was a mistake and it was compounded by the failure to qualify for the Gold Cup. Here, Lopez will not have Pappa for distribution purposes or longtime international Carlos Ruiz for support, which will make him a focal point for the US defense, but Monzon has vowed not to make the same personnel mistakes that got Almeida fired and relying on his best club player is step one in ensuring that isn’t a false promise. Lopez can also score from distance, as he did on one of his two World Cup qualifying goals.
US Player to Watch: When In Rome…yes…go on… You know who it is. Rhymes with Dandon Lonovan. Has scored goals from time to time. California guy. California return. Video evidence of his ability below. He’s kind of a big deal.
Prediction: US 2, Guatemala 0. A trip to Pleasure Town for American fans as they strap in for a big month, with a ticket to a 2017 Confederations Cup playoff on the line at Soldier Field. And if you watched any of that tournament this summer, you know how fun that can be.